I keep thinking about abandonment in both modern and ancient contexts and wondering why (and to a lesser extent whether) there seems to be a recent upswing in public interest in abandonment. I've written elsewhere about the work of such photographers as Yves Marchand and Romain Meffree, Camio Jose Vergara (via Kostis Kourelis) and James D. Griffioen (we can now add (thanks to Ryan Stander, Jeff Brouws, and thanks to Aaron Barth, Brian Herbel), and from closer to home the folks at Ghosts of North Dakota and the haunting 2008 Nation Geographic article "The Emptied Prairie"). I've contributed my own fuel to the fire by co-chairing a panel at the 2007 Archaeological Institute of America which focused on abandonment in the archaeological record.
In a forthcoming article (yes, I know...) in the International Journal of Historical Archaeology, I argue, among other things, that abandonment, in its many guises, served as a chronological marker for the end of something. Typically, the something was the abandoned building or object or space, and since archaeology tends to plot the rise and fall of civilizations (in its crudest forms) according to the life history of objects, buildings, and spaces, the abandonment of such things typically serve to mark out the end of a particular culture or period of time. Thus, abandonments are central to the way in which we create historical and chronological periods from the events of the past. Abandonment helps us organize time.
There is an inevitability to abandonment which evokes tragedy. Despite the best intentions of humanity, time (as an active agent) inevitably takes its toll on human constructions and brings them down. In these formulations, abandonment brings to the fore both the power of nature and the folly of human ambition. What I am more interested in, however, is whether our current focus on abandonment is meant to bring about and mark out the end of some era. For as long as history has existed, people have declared history to be at an end. Since the Enlightenment, this call has most frequently been triumphant (see, for example, Fukuyama's End of History and the Last Man), but in our current fixation on abandonment, it seems to be tragic. The focus of abandonment -- monumental hotels, bustling factories, middle class suburbs, rural towns -- cut across American and Western society and suggests a kind of all encompassing futility.
Of course, the celebration of the futility of human works could point to an interpretation that is not simply apocalyptic. The end of one era of achievement whether inevitable or calculated (was the Roman Republic assassinated?) typically ushers in the dawn of a new age. If we see abandonment as a critique of past folly, and it seems that some works that celebrate the return of nature to abandoned places see abandonment as the first step toward a return to a more environmentally conscious and humane world. A post-American landscape sees the collapse of the densely packed urban world and the sprawling suburbs as marking the beginning of a new time.
In fact, it may be necessary to mark or even promote the end of an era in order to take credit for building something new. It was common for ancient rulers to celebrate renewal or return to past glories. They took particular pride in the Early and Middle Byzantine periods for the reconstruction, rebuilding, or refounding of institutions or buildings long abandoned. In these narratives, abandonment continued to mark the folly of the past, but also placed hope in new beginnings.